Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Emerald Remarks

Dear everyone!  Several of you who could not attend the Folk Choir's Emerald Anniversary Reunion have asked for copies of my remarks from the Opening Banquet.  So here they are!

This should come as no surprise to all of you who know me ––
because tonight I’d like to share with you a story.

The story takes places about 15 years ago,
in a small town in the eastern part of County Clare,
across the Atlantic in Ireland. 
We had landed that very morning
and wasted no time, getting to our host parish
and offering a concert of liturgical music.
We were in a tiny church in the village of Tulla
 – home of Ireland’s first cealidh band. 

And as is my tendency, I got little or no sleep on the way over:
I was exhausted, especially after the first concert. 
But the choir created its usual amazing tapestry of music,
despite my own weariness. 

What I wasn’t prepared for
was the reception we got that evening. 
While joyful and enthusiastic about our work,
they were utterly mute when we invited them to sing
– even songs from their own tradition. 
Glazed eyes, closed mouths,
husbands standing out on the church steps
reluctant to come in,
while the women and children huddled together inside. 
It was like we were speaking a different language,
like we were aliens,
even though we were communicating
through the universal language of music.

After the concert,
as the host families were heading out with the choir members,
I sat down, wearily, in the second pew. 
I had been done in, exhausted – and fatigue,
which is the devil’s playground,
was playing with my own spirit. 

I became aware
of a man sitting next to me – and after a moment,
realized by his collar that he was a Catholic priest. 
He made some remark
about me looking pretty disgruntled,
and I remember saying to him, “Why am I doing this? 
Why am I bringing these students over here
so that people can just stare at us and clap?”

I won’t soon forget his response,
in part because of the seeming lunacy
of how he answered me. 
In his best brogue he said,
“Steven, let me tell you the story
of two shoe salesmen.”

“Great,” I thought.  “I’m beyond exhaustion, and now, sitting next to me, is some crazy priest.”

But he went on, undeterred by my bad attitude.  
“Two shoe salesmen,” he said. 
“The first was sent by his company to Africa. 
And after a few weeks
the salesman called in to the home office
and said, ‘Nobody here wears shoes. 
This is crazy.  I’m coming home.”

A few weeks later,
the second salesman was sent out. 
He, too, was sent to Africa. 
And after some days, he called back to the home office. 
“Nobody here wears shoes!” he said ––
enthusiastic was his tone of voice. 
“Nobody here wears shoes. 
The possibilities are endless!”

I looked over at this priest,
whom I did not know,
and whose name I never discovered. 
I half suspect that it wasn’t a priest
who was speaking to me at all,
but rather one of those angeles that we depict
in stained glass in our churches.   
He was looking at me with great love,
and he quietly whispered to me,
“Steven – the possibilities are endless.”

It is a lesson I continue to learn,
year in and year out. 

The possibilities are, indeed, endless. 
When I look back on our choir’s history,
starting out as a small band of eight singers,
with a repertoire that fit entirely
into a single suitcase – my parents’ “honeymoon suitcase,”
as a matter fact – I am breathless
about how these endless possibilities have come to birth.

Because everything we have done, was at one time, merely a possibility:
-      the notion of repeatedly bringing a tribe of college students to a Trappist monastery (to say nothing of recording with them);
-      the audacity of attempting to begin our touring ministry with a miniscule budget, and electing, as a group, to venture overseas, to Ireland, as our first trip;
-      the idea of creating a repertoire that wove traditional and contemporary sounds into one fabric, with perhaps the hope that a few other Christian communities would be interested in what we were creating;
-      the uncanny idea of bringing 50 college students fourteen time zones west and blanket the eastern seaboard of Australia with song and witness and joy;
-      the dream that young men and women would be so fascinated and motivated by singing the Word of God that they would give up a year or more of their life – to teach in disadvantaged schools through the ACE program, become a catechist in the United States through the ECHO program, serve poor children in Central America, walk among poor Catholic communities of Africa, or even bear the gospel back to those silent but desperately faithful and spiritually hungry people in Ireland. 

All of these dreams – and these are
just a few – they were once only possibilities. 
But all of them have become realities,
and they have become so by the will of God
and the beautiful hearts and voices
of all of you assembled in this room.

Is it any wonder that the God
whom we name as Alpha and Omega –
our limitless, boundless God –
is the very God
that has breathed limitless possibilities
into what we have tried to accomplish?

Year by year, new strains
have been added to our legacy of song. 
New composers and lyricists
have joined their voices with ours.
We’ve experienced this even through the past two years,
one with a musical setting of Pope Francis’ call
to “wake up the world with joy.” 
The other, most notably,
was Karen’s and John Kyler’s beautiful new setting
celebrating this Year of Mercy. 

We are well to look back.

A few years ago, people started using a term
with our arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing?” 
They started calling it “our anthem.” 
That song has called us, time and time again,
back to a stance of prophetic witness,
which is what an anthem should do. 

And from the pattern of the prayer
that concludes our rehearsals,
other important traditions have arisen
as the years have unfolded:
the invocation that concludes our evening labors –
first to St. Cecilia, then, about ten years ago,
to Saint Brigid, and now, finally,
to “all the angels and saints.” 

The prayers for “the loneliest person on campus tonight,”
“the men in Michigan City Prison,”
and for “silence when the world is loud.”
The addition of an icon of the Blessed Mother,
joining us with our brother advocates at Gethsemani.
The blessing of our new members –
initially down at the Grotto as first year students,
then concluding in the same place, four years later,
with “Lead, Kindly Light” as their valedictory hymn.

Over the next two days,
I suspect that something wonderful
is going to take place:
people who have never met
will open their mouths in song,
only to find out that they are part of a common family. 
In fact, this song is our family album,
and it brings us great joy,
all of us here at Notre Dame,
to know that such an album
is focused on the will and the healing,
the forgiveness and the mercy,
the joy and gladness of our Living God.

So what have I to share with you this night?

Only one thought,
a thought whispered to me
in a small Irish church,
a thought based on the parable of two peddlers of shoes:

“The possibilities are endless.”

Thank you, my brothers and my sisters. 

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